Studies of Welfare Populations: Data Collection and Research Issues. Child Abuse and Neglect

06/01/2002

The considerable overlap between welfare and child welfare service populations is well documented. Children from welfare families account for as much as 45 percent of those served by the child welfare system (American Humane Association, 1984). The strong association between welfare and child maltreatment may be due to a number of factors, including the stresses associated with poverty, the existence of concurrent risk factors such as mental illness and illicit drugs, and welfare recipients' more frequent contact with public authorities (Coulton et al., 1995; Gelles, 1992; Gil, 1971; Giovannoni and Billingsley, 1970; Wolock and Magura, 1996; Zuravin and DiBlasio, 1996).

Given the documented association between welfare and child maltreatment, a number of authors have reflected on the possible impacts of welfare reform on child welfare (Aber et al., 1995; Haskins, 1995; Meezan and Giovannoni, 1995; Wilson et al., 1995; Zaslow et al., 1995). Essentially all conclude that efforts to induce welfare mothers to self-sufficiency may impact rates of child maltreatment. Again, whether this impact is positive or negative depends in part on what effect reforms have on family income, parental stress, and access to services (Collins and Aber, 1996). For example, loss of benefits or other income supports such as Supplemental Security Income may strain a family's abilities to provide basic necessities such as food and shelter, causing increased neglect and homelessness, even abandonment (Collins, 1997; Knitzer and Bernard, 1997; Shook, 1998). Increased parental stress related to economic, employment, or childcare difficulties may also lead to increased rates of abuse (Knitzer and Bernard, 1997; Meezan and Giovannoni, 1995).

In contrast, positive changes in these areas may be favorable to children and families. For example, rates of abuse and neglect may decline if reforms reduce family's economic hardship. Additionally, gainful employment might improve the mental health of single mothers thereby decreasing the risk of child maltreatment (Garfinkel and McLanahan, 1986). Better access to mental health and drug services also might have similar effects. In addition to impacting the actual rates of maltreatment, the increased scrutiny by public authorities faced by TANF participants and their families might result in greater detection of previously unreported abuse and neglect. Whether positive or negative, these changes likely will be reflected in the number and types of maltreatment reports, the number of case investigations and substantiations, and the number of children placed in foster care.

Welfare reform also may affect the experiences of the children served by the child welfare system. With the passage of PRWORA, a family's economic circumstances become a critical component of the child welfare decision-making process. In particular, parental TANF status could influence the decision to remove a child from a sanctioned parent without any legitimate source of income, and if removed, the TANF status of potential kin caregivers might alter the subsequent placement decision (Zeller, 1998). For example, the proportion of kin placements might decline because kin caregivers might not be exempt from TANF requirements (Berrick et al., 1999; Geen and Waters, 1997; Boots and Green, 1999). Economic factors also might influence children's length of stay in foster care, placement stability, as well as their rates and types of exits from the system. Specifically, parental TANF status might facilitate or stall reunification efforts impacting the duration of children's out-of-home placements. Children placed with kin might experience placement disruptions if their TANF status changes. Although the impact of TANF noncompliance on reunification efforts is clear, compliance also might be problematic, with work making it difficult for parents to meet child welfare timelines such as visitation and court appearances (Knitzer and Bernard, 1997).

In addition to these potential impacts on exit rates, changes in a family's TANF status following reunification might lead to an increased likelihood of reabuse and child welfare system recidivism. Recent research on the child welfare experiences of families in Cleveland suggests that families that go on and off of welfare are more likely to fail in their attempts with reunification of their children than families that continuously receive welfare during the reunification period (Wells and Guo, in press). This, along with data from California (Needell et al., 1999) showing that AFDC families with breaks in AFDC receipt are more likely to become involved with child welfare services, suggests the substantial sensitivity of welfare families to changes in service circumstances.

Unlike the domain of child health, child welfare data traditionally have offered little uniform program participation data. Relevant data are collected only by state child protective service and foster care service departments. In some states (e.g., California) all child welfare administrative data are now entered into one data system. In most states, however, child abuse and neglect reporting and investigation data are gathered separately from data about foster care and adoption. The following section provides an overview of different configurations of these data sources that can be utilized to assess the impact of welfare reform on child maltreatment rates and children's experiences in and exits from the child welfare system. Access and confidentiality issues loom large when using such data to study vulnerable children. Readers should consult Brady and his colleagues (1999, this volume) for an in-depth review of these important topics.

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